If you grow up bookish in America, chances are you’ll know a lot about British birds and wildlife without really meaning to. You’ll read Beatrix Potter and C. S. Lewis and The Secret Garden and who knows what all, and before you know it you’re well-informed, albeit in a purely theoretical way about Skylarks and Mistlethrushes and proper Robins and Nightingales and Turtledoves, to say nothing of badgers. And dwarves. There are dwarves in Britain, right? I mean, I didn’t see any, but I assume they’re nocturnal.
So, okay, incidental knowledge from fictional tales is not enough. Someday, you’ve got to see the real thing. And thus, with high hopes, I tucked my binoculars and an ancient field guide into my bag as I packed and lugged them to JFK airport, en route to London.
We landed at Heathrow early in the morning, and after indulging the Inimitable Todd’s fancies with a breakfast at Wolseley’s, we staggered past Buckingham Palace. I already had my eye out for birds, and a good thing; I looked up in time to see a Sparrowhawk (an extremely sexy little accipiter) cruise over, apparently headed for Hyde Park. I hadn’t even put down my bags yet, and there was life bird #1!
The next day, we headed to the Museum of Natural History with something special in mind.
This gallant creature was stuffed in what I must say was a very archaic display of extinct birds, and almost totally overshadowed by the nearby Dodos. All the visitors kept exclaiming over those big silly doves. The IT got quite indignant on my behalf.
The other highlight of the case was a pair of Imperial Woodpeckers, the Ivorybill’s lesser-known and probably even deader cousin. The bird hall on the whole gave me mixed feelings – the ponderous, dark-wood decor and ranks of glass cases packed with specimens were quaint, and I was engaged because I dig that sort of thing, but I didn’t feel that it was well-calculated to capture the interest and much-needed outrage of the coming generation (or even the current one.) The displays on mammals were considerably better in this regard, particularly those on cetaceans. Still, as I said, I couldn’t help but feel a sneaking fondness for the retro case filled with albino and partially-albino birds, or the commendable honesty of the sad display packed with what looked like hundreds of faded hummingbirds who laid down their lives for a curiosity cabinet.
After the museum, we took a stroll down to the park and my bird-spotting began in earnest. Right off the bat, a gorgeous male Blackbird popped out of some shrubbery and provided excellent looks at his bright yellow beak and American Robin-like physiognomy. In the park proper, I soon spotted what would prove to be the thematic bird for the rest of the trip, in the same way that the Osprey was the thematic bird of the Palm Harbor trip.
I present… the Wood Pigeon:
These guys were everywhere. Robust enough to actually make me feel sorry for the Rock Doves, they nevertheless charmed my socks off with their white collars and rosy-gray waistcoats and classic throaty calls. The also looked, much as I hate to say it, remarkably edible.
The park also provided a plethora of Eurasian Coot and House Martins, as well as a troupe of feral Ring-necked Parakeets and a number of ducks of murky and disreputable origin. I was already five birds up, and the exciting part of my journey was yet to come…